My mother and I went out one Saturday morning to say goodbye to our neighbor, John Bradley, who had died after a long illness. We went to the visitation at the funeral home, not the actual funeral at St. Phillips church, because my mother didn’t want to be confronted by a foreign and unwelcome ritual. She wanted to remember him peacefully, not to brood about religious unreason, of which she had strong opinions.
We were shown into a long narrow room with wooden pews, lit by old-fashioned ceiling fixtures with pink bulbs that made the several people already seated look gentle and beautiful. A fire was blazing in an alcove. It was a cool day, and the fire brought warmth and a quiet animation to the room. We took seats not too close to the front. There were masses of flowers behind and at either end of the coffin. Mr. Bradley (as I called him, still being a young person to him) looked as well as could be expected, though the crinkled skin on his eyelids couldn’t be disguised nor the brown spots on his folded hands. I couldn’t remember ever seeing him with his mouth closed before—he was a great talker. And there was something suddenly youthful about his face, wasn’t there?
We had a long, complicated relationship with Mr. Bradley as our neighbor, but we weren’t family, we weren’t even friends, we were disconnected from every aspect of his life, except that we had lived side-by-side with him for several years. At night, since it was San Francisco and houses were pressed right up against each other, I knew when he couldn’t sleep and got up to stand on his little back landing and look out over the city. He knew when my mother was baking and when I was washing the car. He knew when my daughter took up the saxophone. She was in a tragic-romantic phase then, she had a deep personal investment in the tragic side of everyday life. She said, “Every instrument I touch cries for me, but the tenor cries the best.” I asked Mr. Bradley if it bothered him. “Shame on you for thinking so,” he said. “It’s music. Music! Don’t let her stop.”
We knew a little of his history. We knew he’d been the oldest of many children and had acted as a mother’s help far more than he’d enjoyed. He’d felt the burden of his brothers and sisters so much, he told me once when I was cutting the hedge, that he never married. We knew he drank too much, and ate too much, and liked fires (he had a fire in his fireplace every night, winter and summer). We knew he had enough money, a good pension and social security, but spent very little on himself. Sometimes though, when he saw a great bargain, he might buy, for instance, four brooms and give one to us.
We listened to his relatives talking about him, wishing we could hear everything. We heard “wanted to be a sea captain” and “she was his great friend at one time,” the shorthand for what his intimates already understood. We tried to determine who were his brothers and sisters, those monsters who had destroyed his youth. “Remember,” my mother whispered, “that time he came over in the middle of the night?”
I did remember. At the time he weighed an awful lot; he was at the height of his excesses in eating and drinking, before the illness that shrank him back down to normal size. Anyway it was the middle of the night when we heard a pounding on the front door. We were not frightened, but we put on our bathrobes and went together to the door. There was John B. on the doorstep, quite drunk, quite cheerful, wanting to come in and talk. My mother, used to drunks from childhood and tolerant by nature of human weakness far beyond my comprehension, took over. She sat him down at the kitchen table and started the coffee. She made sandwiches and cut us all a slice of pie. He rambled for a while about old San Francisco, about his mates in the fire department, about our neighbor’s dog, whose barking he wasn’t going to put up with anymore.
My mother didn’t want nonsense at two a.m. I wanted to get this over, too, this neighborly act my mother insisted on, but I had no idea how to move things along. My mother did. “Tell us what’s on your mind, John,” she said. “What’s keeping you awake?”
“I had a dream.”
“I was in a car. Traveling. The land was completely flat. I could see the horizon in all directions and it wasn’t far away. I was running out of gas and I was worried that I wouldn’t get there, wherever I was going.”
My mother nodded as if she understood the significance of the dream. I saw the message, too, I suppose. Life is vague and short, and one worries about having the energy to make anything of it. At that moment there was music on the street, a loud car radio playing the sweetest music in the world, dance music, waltzing music, music with a melody that rose and rose. I jumped up and ran to the window. There was an old car struggling slowly up our steep hill. A smiling young man was driving, leaning back in his seat. I would have gone away with him in a minute. “A young man driving an old, old car,” I said as I returned to the table.
My mother sighed. “When did you have your first car, John?” she asked.
“After the war. I had a quiet war, you know. Even so, I had a hard time settling down afterwards. I was going into the fire department, I was just waiting for the day to come, so I bought an old car. I thought I’d drive around California for a few weeks. I didn’t have much money so I couldn’t go far.”
My mother got up and poured him some more coffee. John was saying, “Already had a bit of land my auntie had given me. This land next door where my house is now. The neighborhood was empty—I didn’t think much of a little square of land on a naked hill, it didn’t mean much to me then. I got into the car with a duffle bag and drove east. I thought the bridge was a miracle. And it wasn’t far past the bridge when the country began, not like now when the city goes on forever. This was summer. I was too shy for love, too shy for anything, but I wanted to see something before I got into harness.”
He paused to look up at us and I nodded. Yes. Everyone wants to think they’ve had experiences that set them apart. Everyone wants to think they’ve made an attempt to discover themselves.
“The hills were yellow,” he said. “Beautiful. I drove until I hit what they call the Gold Country, where the gold came from. Ghost towns then, just about. But there were odd things in those towns, hotels that had been there for a hundred years, for example. I stopped at one of them and took a room.”
He pushed away from the table. I was watching him get young and lean right before my eyes. “I’d meant to keep driving, but once I got to that town, I just wanted to stay. I had to admit something about myself there. My great dreams wouldn’t come true—I wouldn’t go to sea and I wouldn’t fall in love. I always talked about traveling and such, but when it came to the point, I wanted to stay put. I took walks every day, going out east into the forest. There were paths in the forest, animals, I supposed. I’d get on those paths, well, I was a city boy, I was scared of everything, thought I’d come upon a bear! I could have in those days.” He stopped then to sip his coffee. “Could I have another sandwich?” he asked. “I’ve never been so hungry.”
My mother got up to make the sandwich. “What happened out there?” she asked.
“I met a man. Poor ragged thing! He’d been out there a long time, close enough to town to sneak in at night, far enough away not to bother people. Looked like the people we have on our streets now—ragged, filthy. But he had a gleam in his eye, this one. When he came out of the trees, I was scared. Had to tell myself, that’s a man, that’s a man. He’d been watching me, wondering if I’d get too close to his nest. We looked at each other for a minute and he stuck out his hand. I took it, but god, it was filthy! We stared at each other for a few more seconds, then he pointed to a path and we walked down it together. He showed me his place—a few sticks, and a sort of lean to. He had a fire going and we sat down by it. We didn’t say a word. After a while I went back to town.
“Next day I went back out with candy bars and cigarettes. He nodded to me. He still didn’t say anything, I thought maybe he couldn’t. I didn’t know. I didn’t talk either. We sat by the fire and smoked. There were tall trees all around us and it was awfully quiet, just the fire crackling. It was a wonderful place, a place for dreaming by the fire. I’ve always liked fires, well, you know that. Next day I went back again. This went on for about a week before my money started running out. I had to go home. On the last day, I went out with a bag of groceries. We sat down by the fire and lit up. I said I was going back to the city.
“He nodded and I went back to staring at the fire. After a while he cleared his throat and started to talk. Such a high, scratchy voice! ‘Knew you were going,’ he said. ‘You couldn’t stay forever.’ Something like that. The thing was I could have stayed forever. When I was out there I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my life, a better thing to do than stare at that fire. We talked all day, to make up for our silence before and because I was leaving. He’d been in the war, he’d been a prisoner of war, he’d seen such things—I won’t tell you—terrible things. He’d gone to the woods because he didn’t trust himself with people anymore. He kept comparing himself to me. I didn’t like it! I was young, just starting out, he seemed at the end of things. When it started to get dark, I stood up. I said, ’I’ve got to go.’
“He said, ’Yes, you go on home. You’re like me, you just want to be at home.’ He was right, I knew it. Is it so wrong to want a quiet life? I went back to town. I didn’t drink in those days. Scared of it. But when I got back to the hotel, I ordered a bottle of whiskey and took it up to my room. When I was feeling pretty good, I lay down on the bed and traveled a million miles. It turned out to be my kind of sailing.”
My mother put her head in her hands. This was a familiar story to her.
I said, “That’s a dangerous way to travel.”
My mother gave me such a look. I wasn’t to question his way to paradise. I was to accept it and honor it, if I could. “My daughter is a great traveler, too, in her way,” she said. She meant that I was restless and wild, always changing husbands or jobs or houses. This touched on our old argument—When was I going to behave? When was I going to stop setting myself apart? Even though the argument had changed significantly since she’d become dependent on me, she never gave up hope that I’d stop being a freak. We often talked to each other through other people’s stories.
“Now it’s time for bed, don’t you think?” she said and got him to his feet. He wasn’t drunk anymore, but he was sad. It was my job to get him home, and it was difficult because he didn’t want to go. I put my arm through his and we set out together. We walked up the hill with enormous difficulty, as if we were battling a stiff wind. Our steps were so small, our progress so slow, I wondered if we would ever reach his door. His great belly was hanging over his jeans, his glasses were far down on his nose. We were tempting gravity with every step. I seriously contemplated getting him to his knees. I was pretty sure we could crawl up the hill if we couldn’t walk. But at last we stood at his door, fumbling with the keys. He didn’t help me choose the right one from the great clump he carried, and finding the keyhole in the dark was close to impossible, but I finally got him inside his house and he beckoned me to join him on the back landing. The sun was rising. We could see Dolores Park in the distance, a tiny square of green, palm trees waving, the sky a miracle of pinks. “You see that?” he said, “sunrise over Dolores Park. And there is the bay and back there is the ocean we can’t see. But we know it’s there, girl, we know it’s there, we know we could get to it if it was in our natures to do so. Goodnight, dear.”
When I got back, I found my mother lying on her bed asleep, lights blazing. She sat up when I came in. “I had the funniest dream,” she said. “Martin (her first husband, the one she’d loved, my father, dead now for twenty- five years) and I were sailing. It was so beautiful, so calm, so blue. The water was like glass. Martin was diving. He was slim and young and his hair was still blonde. The water was so clear I could see him go down, down, down. Deep in the water were a lot of other people we knew, a whole city. He kept diving and coming back up to me. There was a party below and we were late. Wasn’t that a strange dream?”
“Strange and beautiful,” I said. “Goodnight.” I left her quickly and went to my own room before tears could start. I interpreted a lot of her dreams as a way to get comfortable with death, and that was another. It had been a strange and marvelous night, the night Mr. Bradley came to call.
My mother nudged me. From a distant room in the funeral home we could hear ragged voices singing a hymn. There was a sudden bustle in our room, too. It was time for the body to be moved on to the church. We got up to go home, taking with us a small plasticized card with a beatific Jesus on one side and a sacred heart on the other, as well as Mr. B’s dates and a suitable biblical quotation. No one had attempted to speak to us, no one had tried to understand our relationship to Mr. Bradley. This was shocking to my mother. “It’s strange to be somewhere where only the corpse knows you,” she said.
I took her arm and we started out. “He looked young, didn’t he?” my mother asked.
“Like a baby,” I said. I meant it, too. We’d been incapable of receiving it before, in the hypnotic sameness of living side-by-side, but now that he was gone, now that we were remembering him, his innocent heart had come forward from its deep concealments and opened itself to us.
Aka Mark Donicht
Norah, I’d love to get in touch with you! :o) 💖